Picks and Pans Review: The Virgin Suicides

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Four ravishing sisters, grounded by their parents in the wake of their youngest sibling's suicide, become a symbol of adolescent angst and eroticism for a group of boys in Jeffrey Eugenides's rhapsodic first novel.

The confined girls—14, 15, 16, 17—communicate to the outside world by relaying semaphore flashes from candles at their darkened windows. The novel begins with the suicide of 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon and tracks how her demise ultimately sets off a domino effect in the suicides of her remaining sisters. The story is told through the choral voice of a collective first-person narrator: the boys in the suburban neighborhood looking back as grown men.

The story is driven by the narrator's lustful fascination with the Lisbon sisters, particularly 14-year-old Lux, the most gregarious and sexually extroverted of them. After the death of Cecilia, Lux rebels against her parents' relentless vigilance. She recklessly seduces neighborhood boys in public places, as well as on the roof of her house, which the despairing family allows to fall into decrepitude.

With a deft, often comedic touch, Eugenides examines the concept of mass suicide in a way that might, in less assured hands, strain a reader's credulity. By skillfully displaying the parents' inability to succor the grief of their surviving daughters and by showing a father "with the lost look of a man who realized that all this dying was going to be all the life he ever had," the author makes the reader understand the lemminglike conduct of a group of adolescent siblings. By turns hypnotic and elegiac, the novel manages to sustain a high level of suspense in what is clearly an impressive debut. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18)

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